Trudeau announces review of Arctic strategy, joint drilling ban with U.S.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a ban on offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic on the same day. The North American leaders say it's part of their commitment to protecting the North from climate change.

Canadian drilling restriction will be reviewed every 5 years, but U.S. ban is permanent

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama, pictured in Ottawa last June, announced a drilling ban in Arctic waters in a joint statement Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a ban on offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic in a joint statement issued Tuesday.

"Today, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are proud to launch actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science-based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity," the statement read.

Obama has permanently banned oil and gas development in U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Canada declared a five-year ban on new licensing in all Arctic waters, with a review based on climate and marine science at the end of that period.

The Canadian government is also revising its policy for the North. The Liberals said they are replacing the previous government's northern strategy with an "Arctic policy framework." 

Former prime minister Stephen Harper's northern strategy put an emphasis on asserting Canadian sovereignty through the Canadian Rangers and addressing economic concerns through natural resource development.

There will be a specific component of the policy geared toward Inuit people.

Canada and the U.S. also announced they will start a process to identify low-impact shipping corridors. The process will include determining where vessels will not be allowed to sail and gauging what kind of infrastructure and emergency response systems will be needed for northern shipping routes.

In September, Obama became the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle. The joint Canada-U.S. statement covers oil and gas, community development and fisheries. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Both countries said they would regulate the development of fisheries in the Arctic. The U.S. said it will support existing commercial fishing closures in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Canada will work with northern and Indigenous communities to build Arctic fisheries based on scientific regulation.

N.W.T. premier 'concerned'

Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod said the federal government did not consult with his people ahead of today's announcement.

"We are concerned by the announcement and firmly believe northerners should be involved in making decisions that affect them and their economic future, and in this instance, they weren't," McLeod said.

"The North is an expensive place to live and there aren't a lot of options for people who need good jobs so they can provide for themselves and their families."

McLeod said his government is committed to environmentally sound growth, but that limiting fossil fuel development could be harmful to the sustainability of the northern way of life.

​"I know the prime minister shares my concerns about generating growth for the North and was pleased that he committed to work with us immediately on a strategy for making lasting, positive change for the North."

'Unnecessary risk' for oil and gas, WWF says

Environmentalists are celebrating the drilling ban in a region that's among the most affected by climate change.

World Wildlife Fund-Canada president David Miller said Arctic conditions create an "unnecessary level of risk when it comes to oil and gas extraction."

"Today's announcement shows an impressive commitment to protect one of our most ecologically sensitive areas," Miller said in a statement.

Environmental Defence released a statement heaping "huge praise" on the Canadian and American governments. The organization said the decision to stop drilling will allow for the greatest chance of keeping the Arctic ecosystem and people healthy.

Political positioning

Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor who recently published a book called Who Owns the Arctic?, told The Canadian Press that the only surprise in the announcement is that it provides for a five-year review of the ban.

Byers said the move seems designed to show that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is protecting the environment, despite a recent decision to sanction two oil pipelines — the Trans Mountain expansion and Line 3 replacement project.

"Closing the door to Arctic oil and gas helps to position himself on the climate change file by saying that there are limits in terms of the development of new oil and gas fields, therefore drawing a line in the sand from a climate change perspective," he said.

"There's no activity taking place in the Canadian Arctic right now, so saying no doesn't require anyone to stop."

The oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer, one of two drilling rigs Royal Dutch Shell planned to outfit for Arctic oil exploration, is shown in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

With files from The Canadian Press